scholars and rogues

On the death of an intimate stranger

The phone call came early in the afternoon.  My wife’s mom calling from 10,000 kilometres away. An article in the paper.  “I thought you should know.” And her cry, of grief and pain and anguish and horror and infinite sadness, as I rushed downstairs to catch her.

Ferrie was 84.  The fire which gutted her apartment took with it not only one of my wife’s dearest friends but also a collection of hundreds of paintings produced by Ferrie and her husband.  She was sufficiently famous to earn a newspaper mention.  Without which we would not have known.

Intimate strangers.  Dear friends, but distant.  People who you see every so often.  The very sparseness of the engagements adding to the sense of closeness. 

Sometimes you don’t even know them directly. I still remember the pain I felt on reading that Terry Pratchett has Alzheimer’s.  I’ve read his books since I was a teenager.  We have no direct relationship but my emotional bond is still there.

Intimate strangers.  The relationship is with the person.  Usually one doesn’t know their family or friends.  There is no other number to call or address to write to.  Just them.  If the phone isn’t answered, or the letters not replied to, who would tell you?  How would you find out?

The first intimate stranger whose death I experienced happened in university.  My first year in residence.  Lots of new friends.  And new students have all the answers.  We would talk all night and then sleep through lectures the next day.

One of those friends was Mark.  He was a business student.  Dedicated.  He would always leave every debate to go study.  A laugh and then his catch-phrase, “I’ve got a fortune of work.”  We became good friends.  When exams ended in November and the next year started in February I didn’t hear until June that he hadn’t come back.  That he was diagnosed with leukaemia and hadn’t survived the New Year.

How do you mourn?  The relationship was intimate.  The friendship heartfelt.  But you are stranded from the ritual of their death.  More so when that death is the result of something unexpected and horrifying.  The contradiction between the caring, loving person and the awful way they died is even more painful.

There is a theory that human beings first began to settle to be close to their dead.  That may be apocryphal but it is certainly true that the oldest human ceremonies relate to mourning and burial.

The process of mourning allows one to come to terms with the severing of the threads that connect you to your loved one, and them to the future.  But those traditions are built around close friends and family.  Not for those whose lives were touched but are not part of that immediate circle.

We, the living, need those graveyards and funerals and traditions.  We need the closure that comes with that process of grieving.  For we are mortal and we know that we are mortal.  We need to mourn the love which we share.

A few months ago we at Scholars and Rogues shared our own lists of intimate strangers.  The writers, musicians, artists, philosophers, scientists and statesmen – the human beings – who have touched our lives and who we will, or do, most miss.

I remember reading that James Clavell had died.  It was months after his death.  I wanted to mourn but didn’t know how.  Richard Feynman is still a presence.  My wife and I share his books and treasure the few filmed clips of him in person.  There’s a long list of people like that.

And then there are those one actually knew.

The social Internet is expanding this list of intimate strangers.  I’ve collaborated with my colleagues at Scholars and Rogues for years.  I’ve met few of them.  One of our number died earlier this year.

Our connections to intimate strangers is deepening.  Maybe you’ve followed the blog of your favourite thinker and even engaged with them?  Maybe you follow the Twitter feed of one of your heroes.  Have Facebook friends who are really real.  But you’ve never met.

The Internet doesn’t forget but sometimes the pages go quiet.  There is no closure.  No burial.  No memorial.  Just an unfinished conversation.

“I’ve forgotten what one does when a loved one dies,” said my wife as we cuddled, as those who survive the dead do.

“You light a candle,” I said.

“You light a candle, and you hold their memory close.”

Categories: scholars and rogues

6 replies »

  1. Thanks, Gavin. Odd coincidence: band mate and I watched the “Concert for George” last night on dvd. Cried again for one of my most intimate strangers, George Harrison.

    My deepest sympathy to you and your wife….

  2. Agreed. Been through this repeatedly. My sympathies to you and wife.

    And well done, Gavin.